Occupy Policing: The Eviction of Occupy Melbourne

Inspired by the global call for ac­tion by the Indignados move­ment in Spain, the protests and re­volu­tions across the Arab World and the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City, act­iv­ists or­gan­ised to launch Occupy Melbourne in City Square on 15 October 2011. Occupy Melbourne sought to trans­form City Square into a ‘common’ space of polit­ical demon­stra­tion where people could learn, dis­cuss and demon­strate about is­sues of con­cern. In par­tic­ular, the ab­uses of polit­ical and cor­porate power, glob­al­ised neo-​liberalism, the im­pos­i­tion of aus­terity, and the privat­isa­tion of public services.

Six days later, in the early hours of Friday 21 October 2011, Occupy Melbourne pro­testers were re­quested by Melbourne City Council to leave City Square. A few days earlier, Lord Mayor Doyle claimed that the pro­testers had a ‘right to protest’ but that this right was time-​restricted. ‘A week’, claimed Doyle, ‘was a reas­on­able time for their mind­less shriek of protest’. Assistant Commissioner Fontana was re­ported as saying: ‘They’ve [pro­testers] had more than ample time to make their point in terms of what their protest is about and I think it’s time to give the City Square back to the cit­izens of Melbourne.’ If it is to be mean­ingful, any polit­ical ‘right to protest’ needs to pro­tect how pro­testers make their point. Continuous protest in the form of an ‘oc­cu­pa­tion’ was central to the mode of protest that the Occupy Movement took. Placing time re­stric­tion on this de­feats the spe­cific ob­jective of the global Occupy move­ment. Therefore many pro­testers re­mained in the City Square, and others joined them in as­serting the ‘public’ nature of the Square and the right to be in and create open spaces for polit­ical demon­stra­tion and com­mu­nic­a­tion. The Square was fenced off from pro­testers, and ba­sic­ally sur­rounded by police.

At around 11:30am, Victorian Police of­ficers from the Public Order Response Team in groups of 4 – 6 of­ficers ad­vance to­wards Occupiers and phys­ic­ally re­move them one by one, car­rying or drag­ging them out of City Square. Occupiers who have linked arms are wrenched out of that form­a­tion. Over 100 people are re­moved in this way from City Square. Communal and private prop­erty was re­moved from the site. Prior to this vi­olent evic­tion from City Square a crowd of hun­dreds gather to watch and sup­port pro­testers in the Square.

One year on from the con­tro­ver­sial evic­tion ‘Occupy Policing: A Report into the Effects and Legality of the Eviction of Occupy Melbourne from City Square on 21 October 2011′ is highly crit­ical of the au­thor­ities — Melbourne City Council and Victoria Police — who au­thor­ised and ef­fected the evic­tion. The Report doc­u­ments the per­sonal stories of people who took part in the Occupy Melbourne protests and their ex­per­i­ences of poli­cing. It com­ple­ments these per­sonal stories with an ac­count of the rel­evant law. The Report was pub­lished by the Occupy Melbourne Legal Support Team (‘OMLST’) and is en­dorsed by the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre, Fitzroy Legal Service, the Federation of Community Legal Centre and the National Police Accountability Network.

The Report doc­u­ments the harmful ef­fects of this poli­cing op­er­a­tion both on in­di­viduals and also on the ca­pa­city and will­ing­ness of people to en­gage in polit­ical dis­sent. ‘Today my whole per­cep­tion of what freedom means to me in Australia was turned on its head as I wit­nessed the scar­iest bru­tality I have ever seen po­lice con­duct’, Emily, 37, stated to the OMLST. The ef­fects of such vi­ol­ence can be trau­mat­ising. Many pro­testers at Occupy Melbourne were new to act­ivism and had no pre­vious ex­per­i­ences of the vi­ol­ence in­flicted in the name of ‘public order’. Protesters’ state­ments col­lated in the Report speak of the terror ex­per­i­enced from poli­cing op­er­a­tions, in­cluding mounted po­lice char­ging through the protest and the use of dog squads. The Report doc­u­ments phys­ical in­juries sus­tained in the poli­cing of Occupy Melbourne, cuts, grazes and bruises as well as ser­ious in­juries in­cluding broken noses, black eyes and back in­juries. It also doc­u­ments longer-​term psy­cho­lo­gical ef­fects. ‘For a while I would feel a wave of anxiety/​panic come over me whenever I walked past or saw a po­lice of­ficer’, Sasha, 25, told the OMLST. The Report also ar­gues that such vi­ol­ence has broader polit­ical ef­fects in that it has a ‘stifling’ ef­fect and acts as a de­terrent to people joining and par­ti­cip­ating in move­ments for pro­gressive so­cial change.

The Report ex­am­ines the various legal bases used to jus­tify the evic­tion of Occupy Melbourne; breaches of local law; tres­pass in a public place; common law ‘breach of the peace’ powers, and; con­tro­ver­sial stat­utory ‘Move-​On’ powers. The Report finds that none of these bases are sub­stan­ti­ated, and that the forceful re­moval of Occupy Melbourne pro­testers by Victoria Police and Melbourne City Council ap­pears to have been unlawful.

These find­ings en­dorse the com­ments made by Liberty Victoria President Spencer Zifcak who de­scribed the legal grounds re­lied upon by Melbourne City Council and Victoria Police as ‘flimsy’ and ‘un­cer­tain’. Its ana­lysis high­lights the prob­lem­atic nature of po­lice use of breach of the peace powers to jus­tify re­pressive ac­tion, and points to how breach of the peace powers give po­lice large amounts of dis­cre­tion and have been used by po­lice to in­stigate ‘order’ and sup­press dis­sent, es­pe­cially be­cause these laws are dif­fi­cult to chal­lenge on the spot.

The use of force in re­moving Occupy Melbourne pro­testers from City Square and poli­cing the sub­sequent protest in the Central Business District shocked the na­tional and in­ter­na­tional com­munity. Occupy Melbourne pro­testers were the first in the Occupy move­ment glob­ally to be sub­jected to a vi­olent poli­cing in­ter­ven­tion. The Report ar­gues that there is ample evid­ence avail­able as a matter of public re­cord of ex­cessive and un­ne­ces­sary use of force. The Report doc­u­ments po­lice use of bodily force such as grabbing and drag­ging pro­testers by the neck, legs, arms; throwing and pushing pro­testers to the ground; punching and kicking pro­testers, in­cluding in the face; use of choke­holds and pres­sure points; and kneeing pro­testers in the face and groin. It fur­ther ar­gues that such use of force ar­gu­ably breaches le­gis­lative re­stric­tions on the use of force in­cluding Victoria Police’s own in­ternal guidelines and that in­di­vidual po­lice of­ficers need to be held ac­count­able for these breaches. The Report also doc­u­ments the use of choke­holds, horses and OC spray in ways which were both harmful and ar­gu­ably in breach of in­ternal guidelines.

Through the course of the morning much larger num­bers of Melbournians gathered in the Central Business District. Some gathered to sup­port, some to ob­serve, and some to demon­strate against the for­cible re­moval and poli­cing of Occupy Melbourne. Between 11:45 and ap­prox­im­ately 5pm, this protest was pushed by po­lice up Swanston Street, along Lonsdale and Russell Streets. During the af­ter­noon, po­lice used ‘snatch squads’ to grab people — some who ap­peared to be protest ‘leaders’ and others who were simply bystanders on their lunch break — from the street. Over the af­ter­noon, ap­prox­im­ately 100 people were taken into po­lice cus­tody. Protesters were taken to po­lice sta­tions in­cluding St Kilda, Heidelberg, St Kilda Road, North Melbourne, Moonee Ponds, Altona, Melbourne Custody Centre and Moorabbin. Others pro­testers were held for shorter periods. Some pro­testers were driven away from the Central Business District and re­leased in seem­ingly random loc­a­tions, in­cluding a pad­dock in Altona. A large pro­por­tion of pro­testers were held in cus­tody for many hours, both in brawler vans and at po­lice sta­tions across Melbourne. The con­di­tions of con­fine­ment were in­ad­equate. The Report ar­gues po­lice were ar­gu­ably acting out­side of their le­git­imate power and in­ternal guidelines in de­taining people pur­suant to ‘breach of the peace’ powers. It finds that the ac­tions of po­lice in de­taining ap­prox­im­ately 100 people on 21 October 2011 may well have ex­ceeded their lawful powers and con­sti­tuted false imprisonment.

One year after the events of the evic­tion, as far as the OMLST has been able to as­cer­tain, no pro­testers have been charged with tres­pass or with any vi­olent of­fences re­lating to 21 October 2011. One year later, the au­thor­ities which au­thor­ised the evic­tion and the poli­cing op­er­a­tion have not been held ac­count­able for their ac­tions, in­di­vidual po­lice of­ficers who acted con­trary to guidelines on use of force also have yet to be held ac­count­able for their ac­tions. One year later, it is ur­gently time for an in­de­pendent in­vest­ig­a­tion to doc­u­ment and as­sess the events of the 21 October 2011 in order to au­thorise such ac­count­ab­ility pro­cesses. As Tamar Hopkin, Principle Solicitor, Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre writes in her for­ward to the Report, such an in­de­pendent in­quiry is ‘not only ne­ces­sary to re­store the community’s faith that the rule of law still op­er­ates in Victoria, but is re­quired under in­ter­na­tional human rights law where al­leg­a­tions of human rights ab­uses have been made.’

The Report can be down­loaded from here: print ver­sion or elec­tronic ver­sion.

Julia Dehm and Sara Dehm are PhD Candidates at Melbourne Law School. 

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